Sharks flee in terror when killer whales show up

Sharks fear killer whales. How does this impact the ecosystems they share?

orca pod
Credit: Tory Kallman/Shutterstock
  • A new study finds that sharks will flee areas they met orcas in for up to a year.
  • Killer whales are known to eat sharks, but it is unknown if the sharks are fleeing because they know that too.
  • The discovery will change our understanding of how marine ecosystems evolve.

Orcas, also known as "killer whales," are pretty cool. They're usually friendly despite their nickname, and are in an elite club of animals with no natural predators. With a range that spans the world and a coloring reminiscent of an equally popular but much less capable land animal, their image permeates pop culture.

But a new study published in Scientific Reports offers another reason to be impressed by these majestic creatures; they are so intimidating to ocean life that even great white sharks flee in terror before them.

The true apex predator

The study, titled "Killer whales redistribute white shark foraging pressure on seals," results from years of investigations into the movements and behavior of 165 tagged great white sharks, observations and records of killer whale movements, and information on seal populations off the coast of California. They also looked to previous descriptions of shark and whale interactions to give context to their findings.

The sharks immediately turned tail and fled in every time they crossed paths with orcas. They'd also stay away from that place long afterward. Only one observed shark dared venture back to where it had just encountered the whales, and it didn't stick around. Most of the sharks merely fled a bit further up the coastline, while others went much further out to sea to avoid the whales.

Why are they doing this?

Orcas have been known to eat great whites. The remains of the sharks are a grotesque sight to behold and are always missing their livers, no matter how much else remains or is missing. If the orcas have discovered a source of Chianti to pair with them or not remains unknown at this time.

However, we don't currently know if the sharks are fleeing because they understand that risk, because they knew the orcas would fight them for the same food supply, because whales look big and scary to them, or some combination of the three.

Before this gets too frightening, there are no known cases of wild orcas killing humans, and only a few examples of injuries being caused by these interactions. Orcas kept in tiny boxes for long periods can be a bit more violent, but that's another story.

Anything that makes sharks flee in terror will have an impact on the ecosystem. In this case, elephant seals benefit.

Observations of seal populations show a decline in predation events after orcas that can last for an entire year. While orcas occasionally snack on elephant seals, they stick to fish most of the time. It's a boon for the seals in areas the sharks leave, though the seals in the places they flee to might not see it that way. The findings of this study will inform our understanding of seal population fluctuations.

As lead author Salvador Jorgensen explains, the study also demonstrates that "food chains are not always linear. So-called lateral interactions between top predators are fairly well known on land but are much harder to document in the ocean. And because this one happens so infrequently, it may take us a while longer to fully understand the dynamics."

For those wondering how much longer it may take to reach that understanding, this study relied on decades of data on shark, whale, and seal populations in addition to the recently collected information. While demonstrating the value of long-term datasets and the long-term importance of minor interactions is great for science, the impatient may be disappointed at the slow pace of progress.

But the most important take away of this study might be the obvious one:

Never made an orca angry, unless you're tougher than a great white shark.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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